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For Guys

Finding Javan Rhinos in Ujong Kulon National Park, Indonesia


EX Adventurer
Name: George Horsington
Age: 39
Nationality: British
Job: President of Business Development at Jaya Holdings Ltd
Interesting Fact: As well as running half-marathons, George is the author of the entertaining travel book, What Goes On Tour, Stays On Tour 

The wooden canoe rocked violently. We were in the mangroves of Ujong Kulon National Park at the far western tip of Java in Indonesia. I grabbed the sides for balance, and looked up, alarmed. Nobody spoke.

It was the last day of our trek in search of the highly endangered and extremely elusive Javan rhino, three or four dozen of which are supposed to reside in a thickly forested, malarial national park in the shadow of Krakatoa, beside the Sunda Strait. We had tramped through the forest, but the shadowy armoured giants had evaded us – not surprisingly, as the whole species only survives the depredations of armed poachers because the few remaining rhinos are fearful of humans and invisible in the rain forest. From time to time, they are photographed by conservationists with remote camera traps, but not by Nikon-toting expats on a short-haul holiday.

There was a gentle slopping sound from the edge of the mangroves as the four of us glided to a halt. The boat was now stationary; Jimmy let his paddle slide silently into the middle of the dug-out. He was slowly moving to stand up, facing us, using one arm to balance and pointing vigorously to something in the mass of shoots and leaves above our heads. The morning sun was shining through the foliage. My eyes took time to adjust. I made out a coiled green-brown shape, wrapped around the branch. What was it?

He whispered, “We call this senca bodoh in Sulawesi; the stupid python. I will show you.”

“Don’t touch the snake, Jimmy!” I hissed back. “Please, we’re in a boat. There’s a child. Please, no,” I insisted. My son’s nostrils flared, as he realised what the guide planned.

Jimmy smiled and looked at me sympathetically. He was shirtless, exposing sinewy mountaineer’s muscles, and a bizarre collage of red and blue abstract tattoos across his chest

“It is not a dangerous snake. Don’t worry. It is not like the green pit viper we have back in Sulawesi. That is a very angry and aggressive creature. This snake is nothing. It is a slow and stupid Javanese python. Your boy will like.” He gestured with his head to my son.

I felt blood pump to my head. No sane person would deliberately catch a snake with his bare hands and bring it into a canoe to show an 11-year old. Not in the middle of a swamp, three hours by wooden fishing boat and another six hours by road from the nearest hospital. Not even if it was a sedated, lethargic, baby Javanese python with a low IQ.

But then, Jimmy wasn’t your average guy. He usually makes his living guiding climbers up the glaciers of Papua’s Carstensz Pyramid, the highest mountain in Indonesia, and this jungle hike was a weekend break from the gruelling routine of icy ascents and sheer rock faces. 

This was my fault. I had wanted an adventure trip into one of the last wildernesses on the over-crowded island of Java, but not this kind of adventure. The remote and deserted beaches, the camp-fire meals, and the long voyage to the park past bamboo fishing huts moored in the open sea, I could handle. But not snakes.

“Please, Jimmy, sit down,” I begged, feeling the sway of the canoe under me as his feet shifted in preparation for the grab.

He moved to full standing position. The dug-out gently wobbled again. I caught my breath. My son closed his eyes. Jimmy brought both arms in front of his face, ready to seize the snake. He snatched. Time stood still; then speeded up. A flash. A splash. Gone.

“Ah, maybe not so stupid, that one,” Jimmy grinned.

We made it back alive, at least, but we never found the rhino. Perhaps we were pretty naïve to think that we would. Poaching has driven the species to the point of extinction and the few individuals that survive are rightfully elusive and fearful of humans. Sightings are rare and the dense, bamboo lowland forests of Ujong Kulon which provide their last shelter, are hard to penetrate. We were disappointed not to spy one, but the bigger fear is that no one will ever see a Javan rhino again, because they will be hunted to extinction. They have already been completely killed off in Vietnam.

Java is a densely populated island and pressures on the national park continue to accumulate. The massive prices Chinese and Vietnamese buyers are willing to pay for the rhino horns mean that unscrupulous poachers are ruthless in murdering these beasts. What do they gain? Rhino horn is in essence an overgrown clump of keratin, the same material as human finger and toe nails. By the time people realise that rhino horn won’t cure their erectile dysfunction or cancer, it may be too late for these incredible creatures.

But you never know, the World Wide Fund for Nature camera traps show that there are still Javan rhinos out there, despite the odds, and maybe, just maybe, you will be the lucky one to see them. If you don’t go, you won’t know.

Plight of the Javan Rhino
The WWF estimates that there are as few as 35 individual Javan rhinos in the 1,200 square km of Ujung Kulon National Park, the last refuge for the species. Vietnam’s final Javan rhino was poached in 2010.

What does a Javan Rhino look like?
A dusky grey colour, it has a single horn of up to 10 inches. Males weigh up to two tons and are around ten feet long. Their skin has a number of loose folds giving the appearance of armour plating.

How to get there
Ujong Kulon is a five to six hour drive from Jakarta, followed by a three to four hour boat ride. There is some domestic tourism to the park, but few foreigners, and most of the domestic visitors come by boat for the day from Carita Beach.

Five-star or rough and ready?
Facilities are very simple. Food was basic fried rice and fried noodles with some grilled fish traded with fishermen we encountered on the boat journey over to the islands. The jungle trekking is relatively easy, as the park is reasonably flat, but the trails are narrow and overgrown in places and it’s muddy at stream crossings. We did see some leaches, so take precautions.

Fancy it?
To trek Ujong Kulon and for more hiking adventures in Indonesia, contact Pak Leo at Indonesia Trekking. Indonesia Trekking arranged the full five days/four night door to door trekking tour from Jakarta to Ujong Kulon and back, including transport, tents, boats, food, guide and park fees. Pak Leo’s English is limited so you might need a Bahasa speaking friend or colleague to help you book.